Support Community Press

You can show your support of a vibrant and healthy free press by becoming a voluntary subscriber.

Subscribe Now

Passion flower: Poinsettia’s allure strong, especially as symbol of Christian faith

Frank Arnosky of Arnosky Family Farms in Blanco

Frank Arnosky of Arnosky Family Farms in Blanco loves poinsettias so much that he started raising them in a small greenhouse in the 1980s before he and his wife, Pamela, founded their farm. They now grow more than 3,000 of the Christmas plants each year. Staff photo by Daniel Clifton

Holiday poinsettias remind the Reverend Harold Vanicek of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church of Marble Falls of his daily faith.

“The plant requires daily care to keep it alive and in order for it to grow and thrive,” he said. “It’s a reminder to me during the Christmas season, which can be so overwhelming, that my own faith needs daily attention and care.”

In the United States, more than 35 million poinsettias are sold each year, which is only one-quarter of the plants purchased worldwide. The ubiquitous poinsettia has blossomed into a regular of the holiday season, yet it comes from humble roots.

“The native poinsettia doesn’t look anything like the ones we grow,” Frank Arnosky said. 

He and his wife, Pamela, own and operate Arnosky Family Farms in Blanco. Each year, they grow several thousand poinsettias for sale. 

Arnosky fell in love with the red-leafed Christmas plant after graduating from Texas A&M University in the 1980s and going to work for Ellison’s Greenhouses in Brenham, where he first learned to grow it. He set up a small greenhouse at his home and began raising poinsettias himself. 

“I can’t really explain why, but I love them,” he said. 

Vanicek calls it part of the poinsettia mystique.

“For me, they are a reminder of our faith during this time of year and that God often uses something from a humble background to bring us back to him and His love for us,” the reverend said.

Unlike nursery-raised plants found in stores around Christmas, a native poinsettia grows 2-15 feet tall and looks more like a shrub or small tree. It is a spindly, almost weedy, plant that grows naturally in parts of Mexico to southern Guatemala, favoring a mid-elevation forest. 

The Aztecs loved the plant, which they called cuetlaxochitl, for its medicinal uses. It was also used to make dyes.

Its journey to decorative Christmas tradition began in the 16th or 17th century with a story about a young girl who was making her way to a nativity at Christmas time. The tradition was to offer gifts to the baby Jesus, but she was poor and had nothing to give. Along the way, she collected weeds to place at the nativity.

“As the story goes, those weeds were actually what we now call poinsettias,” Vanicek said. “We don’t know if it’s exactly what happened, but it’s about that time that the poinsettia became a part of the Christmas tradition.”

white poinsettia
The poinsettia is known for its deep-red leaves during the Christmas season, but growers also cultivate other colors, including white, peach, marbled, and even pumpkin. Staff photo by Daniel Clifton

A passion for poinsettias was ignited in United States in the 1820s when Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico, began shipping them to his South Carolina home. Along with being a diplomat, Poinsett was a skilled botanist. He first spotted the plants in the Taxco region of Mexico and wanted to cultivate them at home.

The red-leafed plant became his regular gift to friends and family during Christmas. It quickly gained favor in the United States and was named poinsettia in 1836. It wasn’t until the 1920s when it really took off. 

Arnosky said that’s when Paul Ecke Sr., a California grower, found a way to propagate and grow poinsettias in large volumes in pots. What started as a roadside stand became Paul Ecke Ranch, the largest single producer of poinsettias in the world. Even today, the facility, which the Ecke family has since sold, is reported to be responsible for almost 70 percent of the poinsettias in the United States and 50 percent worldwide.

Ecke also developed a technique to grow poinsettias in the compact form common today. The method remained a ranch secret for decades.

“About 20 or 30 years ago, word got out about how they were doing it,” Arnosky said. “Because of that, we have more growers experimenting and coming up with different colors and varieties.”

Arnosky Family Farms purchases poinsettia seedlings in September every year from one of the larger producers. Growing them requires almost constant attention to keep the upper leaves from turning red too early. Along with the red version, the farm grows several other colors, including peach, red marbled, white, and even pumpkin. 

Arnosky continuously monitors the temperature, watching the leaves for color change and whether that’s coming too quickly, too slowly, or just right. Timing has to be perfect. 

“It’s a lot of work, but I love doing it,” he said.

Vanicek appreciates the effort, especially when people step into church and see the red poinsettias lining the altar and aisles.

The poinsettia is a symbol of faith, he said.

“One of the things that triggers a poinsettia’s leaves to begin to change is it needs a certain amount of darkness,” Vanicek said. “It’s kind of like this time of year, where, in the Northern Hemisphere and the United States at least, our days are shorter and nights longer. We are coming out of the darkness into the light of Christ at Christmas. The poinsettia reminds me of that.”

Having poinsettias in the sanctuary during Christmas is also a nice reminder of God’s omnipotence, the pastor added.

“I personally like them in the church because it’s a living plant in the sanctuary and it’s giving glory to God in its own way,” Vanicek continued. “It reminds us that God is the God of all living things.”

Arnosky agreed that the plant is a wonderful Christmas tradition with a bit of mystique. 

“They are a lot of work,” Arnosky said. “I could just shut things down after marigolds (in October) and take a few months off, but I can’t. There’s just something about poinsettias that keeps me raising them. I wish I had the words to explain it, but don’t.”

Arnosky Family Farms begins selling its poinsettias directly to the public around Thanksgiving at the Blue Barn, 13977 FM 2325 in Blanco. Of course, the plant also will be available in almost every large retail nursery in the area by December. St. Peter’s Lutheran Church definitely will be in the market for them. 

daniel@thepicayune.com

Tips for poinsettia care

With the right care, the perennial poinsettia can grow well beyond the holiday and even year-round, although without its red leaves. 

  • During the holidays, keep the plants out of direct sunlight. Poinsettias prefer bright, filtered light. 
  • Keep them watered, but don’t overdo it. If the soil surface is dry to the touch, add water. Fertilizer is not necessary when they are in color.
  • After the holidays, trim back below the flowers and colored leaves and then water and fertilize to promote new growth.
  • You can place them outside in the summer, but it’s probably best to find a spot in the shade.
  • In the fall, around October 1, they need total darkness from sundown to sunrise for their leaves to begin changing color. You should also begin moving them inside once temperatures dip below 60 degrees.

Pronunciation

How to pronounce poinsettia is often a point of contention. Some say poin-set-E-ah, while others pronounce it poin-set-ah. No need to fight over it. Both ways are correct.